Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

Guilin

December 31, 2008
by Tina
2 Comments
2,211 views

After a 20 hour train ride from Huang Shan we arrived in Guilin at what we thought was the main train station.  After bout 30 minutes of looking around for our hostel, which was supposed to be directly across the street, we realized that we were in fact at the Guilin North station, nowhere near the hostel we booked expressly because it was close to the train station.  So, we had a taxi take us to the main train station and with a little difficulty and the help of some other “Westerners” we came across we managed to find the hostel.

Rice terrises.

Rice terraces.

Getting a taxi directly to the hostel in many towns poses a few problems, so we usually try to walk or take the bus.  First many of the Taxi drivers that wait at train and bus stations get a commission for taking tourists to specific hotels or hostels, and they are often quite pushy about taking you to their ‘cheaper and better’ hotel. Some will even go so far as to take you to the wrong place on purpose and hope you don’t notice.  We typically get around this by telling the drivers that we have already paid for our accommodation and that we won’t pay them unless they take us to the correct hostel.  We have also found that taxi drivers can either not read, or don’t know how to find addresses, so we often just ask to be taken to an intersection that is near our destination.

The hills around the tareses.

The hills around the terraces.

After chilling in the hostel a bit (literally “chilling” as it was colder than we expected in Guilin and Chinese hostels don’t seem to have heat) we headed out to a Sichuan restaurant recommended by LP with Jan, a Belgian that we met at the hostel.  We came across a couple pouring over their LP and asked if they were headed to the same place – turns out they were. We were pleased to find out that they were from Berkeley so we had lots of questions about home. The five of us had a delicious meal; my favorites were the fired eel (yes eel, both Stuart and I liked it) and the green beans.  Some of the best food I have had in China so far.

Attack of the scary flowers.

Attack of the scary flowers.

Th next day after much debate as to whether we should do a tour or on our own (we decided to go it alone), we set out to visit the rice terraces in a town called Ping An.  Going on our own turned out to be a more complicated and we ended up having to wait an hour and a half in order to transfer to the bus that would take us up to Ping An, which meant we had only about 2 1/2 hours there before we could catch the last bus back. So, we were a little rushed but we manged to see what we came for.  Although brown for the season, the rice terraces were like nothing I had ever seen before and quite majestic.  I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

We arrived back at the hostel around 9.30pm, tired and hungry and went to dinner at a Hong Kong restaurant that was recommended by the woman at our hostel.  Sometimes when we walk around we smell someone cooking something that so incredibly disgusting that we have hold our breath and hurry by.  This is what the food tasted like at this restaurant.  At least it only cost us 8 bucks.

Guilin with the surrounding linestone "hills".

Guilin with the surrounding limestone "rocks" or "hills".

On our last day in Guilin we visited Seven Star Park, which was rather ‘touristic’, but pretty all the same.  The park, and the town, is situated amongst the remarkable and beautiful ‘rocks’ (as Stuart calls them) or ‘hills’ (as I call them) that are unlike anything I have seem elsewhere, and look like the China I had imagined before coming here.  The park had another draw that I wasn’t even aware of before we entered – a panda!  I had very much wanted to visit Chengdu and the panda reserve on this trip, but it was one of the many things we decided to cut out because of our limited time here.  I was pretty bummed that we wouldn’t see a panda while in China (Stuart could care less), so I was very excited (Stuart still didn’t care) at the prospect of unexpectedly seeing one at the park.  Expecting the worse, and getting it, we approached a dark gray cell with a cloudy window and saw our first glimpse of the panda.  Even caged in that sad dark cell, the panda was unbelievably cute. He even did a little yawn and stretch, which I think was quite a treat as it seemed it didn’t do much all day but sleep.

Panda depressed.

Panda depressed.

The other highlight of the park was a massive cave.  In true Chinese fashion we had to go through it on a tour (in Chinese) and the formations, stalagmites and stalactites were lit up with colorful lights giving it a Disney effect.  I didn’t mind though, because all the light meant I could actually see the cool rock formations, with names like “The Great Wall” and ” Elephant Drinking Water” that I otherwise would have missed in dim light.

Decorative Eaves

December 31, 2008
by Stuart
Comments Off on Decorative Eaves
2,700 views

Moon Pond.

Moon Pond.

Since we couldn’t get a train our of Huangshan for another day, we took the bus out to an “historic village” called Hongcun. It’s in an area called Yixian country and part of a collection of little villages that are all within 30 minutes of each other. They are famed for their unique architecture style called “huizhou”. As you’ll see from the photos it’s just a fancy word for white walls, dark roofs and “decorative eaves”. Sorry, I happen to find that phrase so pleasing to say. We had hoped to see a few of them, but after looking at some postcards, it was apparent that one was enough. And while the LP said it was conceived to look like an ox, we sure can attest that it smelled like one.

I find hanging laundry in public places facinating.

I find hanging laundry in public places fascinating.

Notice the decorative eaves?

Notice the decorative eaves?

The town has a crescent-shaped pond in the middle, Moon Pond, which makes for pretty reflections of the surrounding buildings. And along some of the little alleys, there are channels of water running in to the pond. However, this water was used for various unhygienic things. In a 20 foot section long an alley, I saw someone upstream blow their nose into the water. This snot-infested water then ran downstream to someone washing their clothes, then continued to someone washing vegetables for the nearby restaurant.  Needless to say, when it came time for lunch we found a market and got a pack of crackers and a Coke.

"A vast, ancient Chinese Walnut tree."

"A vast, ancient Chinese Walnut tree."

Typical alleyway.

Typical alleyway.

Veggies drying by Moon Pond.

Veggies drying by Moon Pond.

Alleyway. How typical.

Alleyway. How typical.

Everybody Huang Shan Tonight

December 23, 2008
by Stuart
4 Comments
2,527 views

One of the things I’d hoped to do in China was climb one of the sacred peaks. Unfortunately, the ones near anyplace we would be were in the north. And since it was already snowing and in the 20’s in Beijing, we knew it would be freezing in the mountains – maybe even closed. But fortunately, there was Huang Shan, China’s most famous – and popular – mountain just southwest of Shanghai and on the same train line we were planning on taking to Guilin.

Tina on the way up.

Tina on the way up.

So we overnighted it to Tunxi, the small town near the mountain where the train stopped. The hostel was on the Old Street, a small cobblestone and car-free street. We checked in and spent about 30 minutes trying to figure out how the heater in the room worked. For some reason the hostel had all the doors and windows open so it was freezing. The heater was kinda pointless. It was mounted on the wall about four inches from the ceiling – so in our room we were warm down to our knees.

Us at Beginning To Believe peak.

Us at Beginning To Believe peak.

We went to a restaurant across the street recommended by the hostel staff. It was buffet with no English so we had to get some help from a hostess. The food was great but we ordered more food then we could both eat – which didn’t matter because the total bill was less then $4.

"Stone Monkey Gazing Over the Sea of Clouds"

Stone Monkey Gazing over the Sea of Clouds.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the neighborhood making an exciting trip to the grocery store for food to take up the mountain (since food up there is really, really expensive). In the States, when a store is under construction, they usually close it. This store just put more things on sale and dumped it all in grocery carts. Half the shelving was strewn across the store, there where piles of food everywhere and everything was covered in dust. And there must have been 50 people working. Total chaos.

Misty valley below the mountain.

Misty valley below the mountain.

That night we just got food from the hostel bar, but since it was so cold in the bar we asked them to deliver it to our room where the top 3/5ths was kinda warm. Then we packed our daypacks to take with us to the mountain, planning on leaving our luggage in storage at the hostel.

*     *     *

The next morning we caught the bus at 6:30am to the mountain and started hiking. There is a eastern hiking route (7.5k) and an western hiking route (15k)  – or cable cars if desired. The western is not only twice a long, but also twice as hard. The LP book, as well as other people we talked with who had gone up the mountain, suggested doing the eastern up and the western down. This turned out to be a good thing because we hiked about another 8k once we got to the top that afternoon.

People put locks on the fences for good luck with love.

People put locks on the fences for good luck with love.

You don’t really hike as much as walk up steps. All the trails on the mountain are cement or stone steps. And the main routes are used by porters taking sundries (sorry, that word is all over the place in the LP) up and down the mountains with short bamboo sticks with the stuff hanging of the two ends.

This looks like some kind of those motivational posters.

This looks like one of those motivational posters: “Hang in There” or “Branch Out”.

Everything at the top has been carried up by these porters: ceramic tiles, air conditioners, chairs, tables, windows, everything. On the way down we saw porters carrying up paneling, 20-foot sections of pipe, an old school big tv, and all kinds of veggies. People we talked to saw them carrying up a bed and some desks! So when you walk into a lavish hotel at the top, and realize some poor guy lugged this up the mountain, you feel kinda gross. But when you are lying there watching tv with the heat on, you’re like, thanks porter guy. You’re alright in my book.

Surrounding peaks at sunset.

Surrounding peaks at sunset.

But once the guilt creeps back in, you begin to understand how China has grown so quickly: human labor is ridiculously cheap.  It’s cheaper to have people lug a hotel up to the top bit by bit then use a helicopter – or even the cable cars! – to transport things. Plus this keeps people employed (and living off $.50 noodles a day) so I guess it’s a win-win situation. Except for the guy carrying stuff.

*     *     *
The mountain has a valley at the top and peaks all around. It’s kinda like Yosemite: the valley has hotels, banks, crowds and even a basketball court. But the peaks were quiet and solitary with amazing views.

Flying Rock.

Flying Rock.

The first place we went was Beginning To Believe Peak where we stopped and ate lunch. At this point, the only thing I was beginning to believe was that we should have taken the cable car. After lunch, we hiked up all the peaks we could – some were closed for maintenance which we attributed to it being the off season – and some were closed because of high winds.

Good morning sunshine!

Good morning sunshine and sleepy head!

Once it got near sunset, we started heading to our hotel. Now, I must point out here that the map our hostel gave us was the worst map ever. And trying to save weight I left the LP book back in my luggage (altho, checking the LP when I got back showed its map wasn’t much better). Turns out we had to go over two more peaks to get to the hotel which ended up taking more then an hour, getting us to the hotel a little after dusk.

On the way down.

On the way down.

When we checked in, the receptionist showed us to our dorm rooms. But she first took Tina to a women-only dorm that was packed with Chinese girls that Tina couldn’t talk with.  We explained that we had paid for beds in a dorm, but we wanted to be in the same dorm. So after some huffing about, they gave us our own room with no one in it yet that was jammed with bunk beds. There where three bunk beds with a foot-wide walkway between two of them – the third was pushed up right next to the second.

something

The path we took up ended at that white building in the distance. Trust me, it’s there.

Also there was no heat and when I asked about that, I was told that dorm rooms don’t come with heat. I explained that it was the middle of the winter, we were on top of the mountain, sleeping in the bottom of the hotel. The only response to my plea was a firm “No”. But that’s ok – there was a tv in the room that got a channel with movies in English.

*     *     *

We woke up the next morning and hiked back up Brightness Top to watch the sunrise. There weren’t that many people up there so it was nice and quite. Then the moment the sun showed its top, the crowed went wild. And once the entire globe was showing, everyone quickly turned and walked away.

rocks

Those are porters carrying things to the top.

Up close they look like this.

Up close they look like this.

Quick shot of a porter carring a tv.

And from behind, they look like this.

Shanghai Surprise

December 23, 2008
by Stuart
8 Comments
7,179 views

Famous view from the Bund.

Famous view from the Bund.

Wow. Even though I had no idea what to expect in Shanghai, it wasn’t anything like it. It was loud. It was dirty. It smelled bad. It tasted good. It was Chinese. It was foreign. It was crowded. It was great. It was also the most international city in China. While getting to our hostel we saw more westerners, black people (current count for our entire trip so far was about six) and Chinese girls hanging on to the arms of scrawny white dudes then our entire time in China.

Not sure.

No caption.

Apartments next to the canal near the galleries.

Apartments next to the canal near the galleries.

Unlike Beijing, which has classic Chinese architecture, Shanghai doesn’t have much, if any. There was one building that had the classic Chinese tiled roof, but it was in the middle of a construction zone and might be slated for destruction. Yet one of the things I liked most about Shanghai was the diversity of its neighborhoods. The main sections in the heart of the town are: The Bund, Pudong, Old Town, and the French Concession. When you walked from one neighborhood to the next, it would change dramatically in a matter of blocks. There was also this air of possibility. That anything goes as long as you can make it work. Oh, and there are also around 22 million people.

Crazy modern Chinese art. Love the colors.

Crazy modern Chinese art. Love the colors.

Alleyway near the galleries.

Alleyway near the galleries.

Tina, Me, Lily and Steve with 1/2 the food we ended up eating.

Tina, Me, Lily and Steve with 1/2 the food we ended up eating.

We spent the first day walking around the Bund – the famous walkway along the water that looks across the river towards the new high rises. Tina wasn’t feeling that well so I ended up going out to eat with some English lads I met in the hostel that afternoon. We were all fed up with Chinese food so we decided on Indian food. They made for splendid company as we got lost looking for the restaurant (we found it) and added more validity to my theory that English people are the funniest on the planet. One guy said he would love to live in SF, and I said I’d love to live in London, so we tried thinking of a way to switch nationalities.

*     *     *

At the heart of Shanghai is Police Square, wait, I mean People’s Square. The square is divided by a HUGE police building who’s fencing forces you to walk all the way around to get to the other side of the park – so I always get the name wrong. People’s Square was like a mini Central Park – you could see the tops of the buildings poking out from behind the tree tops – and even had a few museums. We spent some time in the Shanghai Museum (it was free!) which had rooms full of ancient Chinese arts – bronze, sculpture, calligraphy, etc.

Alleyway in Old Town.

Alleyway in Old Town.

Shoe shine station.

Shoe shine station.

The sweet high culture in the museum was balanced nicely against the sour low culture out in the Square. When walking around, we must have been approached about six or seven times by different groups of young adults wanting to talk in English and inevitably invite us to tea. Each encounter followed the same format:

Old Town.

Old Town.

Sidewalk babershop & daycare.

Sidewalk barbershop & daycare.

1. They would ask where are we from, how long where we in China, etc.
2. They love America and would talk about something they liked – usually celebrities or basketball.
3. Some conversation took place about my beard and who I looked like: Karl Marx, Santa, Einstein.
4. Usually one person in the group would be from Shanghai, and the others “visiting”.
5. They just happened to be going to an “international tea festival”, and would like us to join them.

Wow! A kitchen sprayer nozzel hose thing!

Wow! A kitchen sprayer nozzle hose thing!

Cricket, cricket. Cricket, cricket.

Cricket, cricket. Cricket, cricket.

The hostel back in Beijing had notes posted by travelers warning of this scam – you go for tea and get stuck with a huge bill, of which the scammers get a commission – so we knew to not go. But they were relentless. We would walk about two minutes, get stuck in another 15 minute conversation, get out of the invite, then walk about two more minutes before it would happen again. We finally had to stop responding to anyone who said “hello”.

We got two of the Mao clocks (bottom right).

We got two of the Mao clocks (bottom right).

Tina and friends.

Tina celebrating the "good ole days".

After turning down all the invites for tea parties, we headed over to a section of town with art galleries – photography is big in Shanghai – where a good friend of mine has a photo gallery. He took us “backstage” and explained how they mounted the photos, organized the shows, found new artists, etc. Then that night we went out for dinner to a great Hunan place, then desert at a chocolate bar in the French Concession. The Concession was a totally different part of town then we had seen before. It had wide tree-lined streets and was much more commercial (read: cleaner). After desserts – which the chocolate bar wisely pointed out is “stressed” backwards – he took us on a walking tour of the neighborhood near his apartment.

*     *     *

Getting a late start the next day, we spent the afternoon in Old Town, which is just south of the Square. This was an entirely different part of town then the parts we had seen – narrow busy streets with laundry hanging everywhere. And each block had little alleys going through to the next street over. One street had a market that was packed with people but still allowed buses to travel down. And in construction zones, the scaffolding was all bamboo trees lashed together.

More Old Town.

More Old Town.

The metro station at night near our hostel.

Outside the metro station at night near our hostel.

Along one street there was a bird and insect market where you could by parakeets, crickets, lizards, fish, turtles, and even rabbits. When the men were perusing the crickets, they would put a little piece of straw into the box and poke the cricket with it, and watch how it responded, then closely examine the cricket. There must have been hundreds of crickets from which to choose, but I wasn’t sure what made them so different as to warrant a thorough inspection.

Pudong at night from the Bund.

Pudong at night from the Bund.

Construction zone near the Bund.

Construction zone near the Bund.

European style bulidings behind the Bund.

European style buildings behind the Bund.

Then on one corner I saw a group of men huddled together with some action going on in the middle. I pushed my way as best I could to see what was going on. I had just missed the action, but people were putting crickets back into their jars and then storing them in their jacket pocket while one man was boxing up what looked like a little hockey rink made of plastic – complete with the clear plastic walls. There must be some kind of cricket competition and the straws are used to “motivate” the crickets when needed.

*     *     *

Shanghai sits near the Grand Canal, a waterway built centuries ago linking the Yellow River with the Yangzi River, where there are several small watertowns that make for a good day trip for respite from the city. Tongli was recommended by a few people and seemed to offer the most without the crowds.

One of the main canals.

One of the main canals in Tongli.

The night before we left, I squared away all the details on how to get there – there was a tour bus company where you paid a small commission and they took care of getting you there, paying the entrance fee, and then you were on your own until it was time to come back. But when we asked again in the morning where we caught the bus, we were told something different – and that took us to the public bus station.

Life along the canal.

Eating along the canal.

There was someone there who spoke basic English, so we got on the right bus which left about five minutes later. Then when we got to the transfer station, someone there gave us a schedule of the buses back to Shanghai and explained how the shuttle buses to Tongli worked.

One of the palaces with its own system of canals.

One of the estates with its own system of canals.

The town was beautiful and not that touristy. Most of the people were townsfolk just going about their day. The canals were lined with narrow cobblestone walkways – on which people still rode their bikes and scooters – with little shops, restaurants and landings were people washed their laundry or cleaned off their mops. There were also a few estates filled with temples, ponds, pagodas and sculpted rock gardens.

One of the outer canals that led into Tongli.

One of the outer canals that led into Tongli.

After catching the buses back to Shanghai, we tried to get in touch with my friend to meet up for dinner but couldn’t get a hold of him. So we headed to the French Concession to Southern Barbarian, a Yunnan restaurant my friend had recommended. The food was good except for the peanut soup. We aren’t sure if it was a translation mistake, but there was nothing “peanut” about this soup. It tasted more like the water left over after rinsing vegetables.

*     *     *

Even though Tina had taken some stuff back with her, we needed to get rid of more things so we took a bunch of stuff to the post office and had it shipped home. If you send a package China Post, you take everything down to the post office and they inspect it before packing it for you. Everything went smoothly until they saw our Mao alarm clocks we had gotten on an antiques street. Evenhough these were plastic kitsch clocks, the worker took them to the back to get permission or something before letting us ship them.

The view from Pudong back towards the Bund.

The view from Pudong across to the Bund.

After getting the package shipped – it will arrive in Oakland in about three months since it’s literally on the slow boat from China! – we headed back to People’s Square to visit the Contemporary Art museum but found it was closed. So we took the metro over to Pudong, the fancy part of Shanghai across from the Bund – where you see all the modern towers. That night we ate Thai food then hit up a little cafe where I got a brownie and banana milkshake. I must have been pretty hungry that night.

Bye Bye, Beijing

December 23, 2008
by Stuart
Comments Off on Bye Bye, Beijing
1,444 views

Our remaining time in Beijing, between taking care of the visa and going to Xi’an and Pingyao, was spent seeing more of the sites. There aren’t many stories to tell, so here are some photos with expanded captions instead.

Temple

Dongyue Temple.

guard

One of the guards in the main archway of Dongyue Temple.

15

Dongyue Temple had various Taoist departments with different functions. This was my favorite: Department For Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death.

Prayer things

Taoist prayer tags at Dongyue Temple.

Antiques market.

Panjaiyuan antiques market.

Cool poster.

Cool poster at the antiques market.

Statues.

Various “antique” statues.

You could by all kinds of mideval weapons!

You could by all kinds of medieval weapons!

Templle of heaven

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Temple of Heaven Park.

Temple of heaven

Temple of Heaven Park.

Hutong.

An hutong alleyway.

Beihi Park.

 Qianhai Lake, North of Beihai Park.

Forbidden City from Jinshan Park on another smoggy day.

Forbidden City viewed from Jingshan Park on another smoggy day.

Mao at night.

Gate of Heavenly Peace at night.

National Theater at night reflected in the surroudning pool.

The Grand National Theater at night mirrored in its reflecting pool. It’s shaped like half an egg with a reflecting pool around it. The reflection completes the shape. Truly stunning at night.

Lama Temple.

Rooftops of the Lama Temple.

One museum had a map of Beijing from centeries ago. The only part left is the Forbidden city - the square with the moat around it in the middle.

The Imperial City Museum had a diorama of Beijing at its zenith. The only parts left are the Forbidden City – the square with the moat around it – and some of the parks to the northwest.

Here we are at the National Aquatics Center (aka. Water Cube) built for the Olympic games all light up at night.

Here we are at the National Aquatics Center (aka. Water Cube) built for the 2008 Olympic Games which gets all lit up pretty at night.

The "Bird Cage" also lit up at night.

The “Bird’s Nest” also lit up at night. Might be one of the coolest structures I’ve ever seen.

Nine Dragon Gate from Beihi Park.

Nine Dragon Screen, Beihai Park.

A miserable gray day at the Sumer Palace.

A miserable gray day at the Summer Palace.